Putting Science and Engineering at the Heart of Government Policy - Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills Committee Contents

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 319 - 339)

MONDAY 18 MAY 2009


  Q319  Dr Gibson: John Beddington and Paul Drayson, thank you very, very much for coming. I have been given the chair of this session, but there have been arguments about the chair in Parliament, as you have heard this afternoon, going on. It will not be like that, I assure you. This is too serious a matter to reduce ourselves to silliness. You know this is the last session on Science and Engineering at the Heart of Government Policy, so we are really looking forward to some advice from you, so I will start off and lob you a quick one, and I think, Paul Drayson, you might want to answer this one. Do you think that science and engineering are at the heart of government policy, or are we kidding ourselves, or are they in the liver, I guess?

  Lord Drayson: I think that we have made real progress over the last year in putting science and engineering more at the heart of government policy, and I think we can point to specific achievements which have helped to deliver that, but I do think that there is more that we need to do, and I think the focus on this area that your Committee's work has brought is helpful.

  Q320  Dr Gibson: John, do you have a view?

  Professor Beddington: Yes, I think to an extent—well, I have been in the job 14 months, a little bit longer than Paul, but by and large I am reasonably pleased. There is a lot more to do, and particularly I think on engineering there is an issue there where we really need to work harder.

  Q321  Dr Gibson: Let us be a little more specific perhaps. We have talked to you before about civil servants with scientific backgrounds, engineering backgrounds and so on. What are you guys doing to meet the goal, and what is the goal?

  Professor Beddington: I think one of the things that I was showing you when I was here last time was setting up this community of government science and engineering. I think the day before, we had held the first conference, which Paul and myself and Gus O'Donnell spoke at. We basically reformulated the plans for that, and we are happy to show them to you in detail if you would like, but I will just cover them briefly. The plan is that we want to double the number of people who we are actually electing to be part of the government science and engineering community.

  Q322  Dr Gibson: Could you quantitate that, John?

  Professor Beddington: Yes, we want to get it up to 3,000, it is currently at 1,600, by the end of the year. In addition, we are going to hold two interim conferences, which again we plan to do, those conferences are going to be on subjects that are actually chosen by the community, and then we are going to have an annual conference in January of next year. So that is one of the things we are doing, and we are actually setting up internet access, so that people can share ideas. So I think that is working well, but it is work in progress. As I indicated to you, we have reason—although the data is so poor, you can say little more than that—to believe there are probably something like 16,000-odd members who have a background in science and engineering skills in government as a whole, but we cannot identify them in any particular way. We are trying to identify them by this self-selection process, and I think that is happening. I was encouraged that in the first relatively early days of the exercise, we brought in about 10%, and we are shooting for 20% next time. I think that that will go, and I have hopes that we will exceed that target of 3,000, but I think it is a judicious one.

  Q323  Mr Boswell: Thank you for that, and thank you for reporting progress, because we expressed some interest in that earlier. Can I just ask either Paul or yourself, John, whether you have made any progress or whether you think there is any progress to be made in developing a general metric about what you might call the science footprint within government? I mean, how do you know whether you are making an impact or not? The Minister said he was, and I am not disposed to argue with him, but how could we actually set about measuring that kind of input?

  Professor Beddington: I suppose there are a few that are worth highlighting. The first one is the fact that we have succeeded in embedding chief scientific advisers almost in every main department of state. There are four advertised at present. One will be the new Department of Energy and Climate Change; the other is the Foreign Office, and there were interviews for that last week, for which I was on the panel; the next one is MI5, where I had to interview and explain it was not involving designing weapons systems for Aston Martins.

  Q324  Dr Gibson: Did they check your record first? Student revolts, no doubt.

  Professor Beddington: They may have. And of course there will be a replacement for Michael Kelly at CLG which is going to be coming up. So really the only large department of state that does not have a chief scientific adviser is now the Treasury, and we are now talking to the Treasury about how that might be implemented, given its rather different brief. So that is one activity that I would focus as being some achievement. The second one is to do with science reviews, and as I discussed in a previous session to this committee, I felt they were too long, too detailed, and therefore, we wanted to move to another form, which is a faster assurance, which will be much more at a higher level but shorter, and we reached agreement about two weeks ago that these would be mandatory for any department or institution that has not actually already had a review. For those that have, like DEFRA and so on, we are in the process of ongoing assessment of how they are performing against a particular review, but it was agreed, in the civil service board which runs such things, that all departments that have not had one will be mandated to have one. The aim is to complete this exercise of having done a science and engineering review of all departments by March 2011, so it is a relatively quick timescale to get them, and this includes things of very different sizes, it includes the Ministry of Defence and the Treasury.

  Q325  Mr Boswell: Will you give some thought to whether you can publish some of the material arising from that? I am thinking for example of the kind of capacity reports which have come out of the Treasury and Cabinet Office in the past in relation to individual departments.

  Professor Beddington: The policy is to publish. The plan would be that we would publish these reports -- the one exception is the intelligence agencies where we would not obviously.

  Q326  Dr Gibson: As I understand it, John, you are talking about people who are in post at the minute, distributed about the Whitehall centres, departments, but I am looking at the young graduate who is fed up and does not want to do research at the bench, but has a real understanding and is a hot shot, man or woman, who wants to get into this. You know, there are lots of people in this country who want to get into putting the ideas of science over from their youthful experience, be it PhD students or post-docs. What are you doing about them? Are you recruiting at Hull, recruiting at Newcastle, looking for more, or are you just recruiting from inside the beltway here?

  Professor Beddington: I cannot answer in terms of actually going out to recruitment. As far as I am aware, that does not happen, I think it is open advertising. I have certainly not been involved in this.

  Q327  Dr Gibson: But would you like it to happen?

  Professor Beddington: I think it is an interesting idea, Chairman. As far as I am aware, some departments do that, I think the Ministry of Defence actually goes out and looks at it, but I cannot answer for government as a whole. I think there is enormous opportunity. I think the chance of getting science and engineering graduates into the fast stream, we discussed, I think, the last time we met here, I would strongly support it. I think we need to think about how we can open that up, and I am more than happy to give a commitment to go away and think about that.

  Dr Gibson: Anybody else want to follow that up?

  Q328  Dr Harris: I just wanted to ask you about how important you think the independence of scientific advisory committees is, reflecting back on the Phillips report into BSE, and how important you think the independence is of advice to you, Lord Drayson, and the people that you talk to, Professor Beddington.

  Lord Drayson: I think it is very important that the advice is independent, not just to myself as Science Minister, but to all ministers within government. It is a very important resource, it is a resource that this country is well endowed with.

  Professor Beddington: We have a lot of science advisory committees in government, of the order of 100 or so on particular subjects. Only a few departments have science advisory councils which span across the individual departments. The ones that do that are the Ministry of Defence, the Home Office, DEFRA and the Food Standards Agency. They are the only ones that have, as it were, a science advisory council that deals with everything. There are many individual committees in many departments which deal with sub-sets of subject areas.

  Q329  Dr Harris: What do you think are the characteristics of an independent scientific advisory system, for example, that guarantee its independence? What are the key factors that need to be there, that they can be independent and be seen to be independent?

  Professor Beddington: I think the first thing is the appointment process clearly has to be independent. Some of them are appointed under Nolan rules where they are paid, some of them are actually appointed in other ways. I think there are some guidelines that were set out for the behaviour of science advisory committees which my predecessor developed, and I think we are planning to keep those under review. I think we need to do that.

  Q330  Dr Harris: Do you have anything to add to the response to my question, which was: what are the essential ingredients in ensuring that scientific advice is independent and seen to be independent?

  Lord Drayson: Publication of results of that advice.

  Q331  Dr Harris: What about the idea of giving advice without fear nor favour, as it were? What about the situation where someone might be concerned that they would be publicly attacked by the minister or government for the nature of their advice, because the minister disagreed with it? Do you think that might lead to questions about whether future advice is independent or seen to be independent?

  Professor Beddington: I can probably answer this, because actually the instance that was probably of considerable concern was when the Home Secretary criticised Professor Nutt for an article he wrote, and I wrote to the Home Secretary about that, indicating that I had real concerns that this affair had the potential of being used both widely and in the media more widely as a discouragement for people wishing to become members of science advisory committees. She responded to me in indicating that she felt that she supported the idea of independent advisory committees, and she felt this had been evidenced by her support of a number of individual recommendations of Professor Nutt's ACMD committee. I still feel that we need to be exploring this, because I think that where you have a publication which is in an independent peer reviewed journal, I think it is unfortunate for government to actually criticise that in Parliament. So I would concur with, for example, the comments that Lord Krebs gave you when you asked him about the same subject. However, I think that in terms of whether in fact this particular instance or others like it, and I know of no others at the moment but you may be able to illuminate me, are genuinely discouraging a set of people who might previously have wanted to sit on science advisory committees, that is not a thing that I have noticed or people have actually mentioned to me. Certainly in terms of the concerns that you might have about the general issue of independence of scientific advice, in the recruitment that we have been doing for chief scientific advisers, there seems to be a genuine enthusiasm and a very good set of candidates for that. I think you took some evidence from Professor Gaskell about DEFRA, who indicated that in people applying to be on DEFRA's science advisory council, there was real interest in there, but, of course, there may well be a cohort who are discouraged, but it is hard to work out how we would actually do that. But I think it is essential that the independence of science advisory committees are maintained, I think as Paul has indicated, they should publish their advice, unless there are national security reasons for not doing so, and I think that is one way to ensure it.

  Q332  Dr Harris: I am grateful to you for setting out what you have done, and that is interesting, because I was not aware of that, and I am not sure the Committee was aware of that. That cannot be entirely private correspondence, because you have summarised it, or at least you have given a summary of it today. Is that as far as you are going to go in respect of letting everyone know, including the scientific advisory world and indeed Parliament, what your concerns were? Would you publish the correspondence?

  Professor Beddington: I think in publishing the correspondence, I would obviously have to consult the Home Secretary, but I would be prepared to consult the Home Secretary and come back to you.

  Q333  Dr Gibson: Before it is published, is that insisted on, are there guidelines about that?

  Professor Beddington: I think it would seem to me to be polite that if you are corresponding with somebody, you should actually ask their agreement whether you would publish both your letter to them and their response.

  Q334  Dr Harris: I would accept that. From the summary you have given, it looks as if you raised concerns, which I understand, and the Home Secretary did not say -- and you will have to correct me if I am wrong -- that she regretted attacking him, criticising him, shall we say, on the floor of the House in the terms that she did, nor phoning him during his out-patient clinic, and I put it politely as request, but I think if you read it it is probably demand, that he apologise for publishing the article in the terms he did. Am I correct that there is not such regret expressed in the response?

  Professor Beddington: I would have to check it, but certainly my memory is that the Home Secretary indicated her strong support for the independence of scientific advisory committees, rather than that she believed she had made a mistake.

  Q335  Dr Harris: You have indicated that you do not think this will have an impact on recruitment, and let us leave that aside.

  Professor Beddington: I am sorry, Dr Harris, I said I do not know.

  Q336  Dr Harris: But there is a separate question -- because I do not want to pursue that recruitment issue -- that the worry is in future, particularly in this department, shall we say, or with this Home Secretary, if one wants to avoid getting that response, they are going to have to not publish what they would otherwise publish, or they might be under pressure to give different advice, such that they are not personally criticised. Is that a concern that you recognise might exist, and would you be concerned about it?

  Professor Beddington: I think this was a particular issue. As I indicated in an earlier response, I have not noticed that occurring widely, and therefore, I think one can decide that this is probably a particular issue and may not occur again. I think that would be the hope.

  Q337  Dr Harris: My final line on this particular issue, on the ACMD, is that it struck me—I mean, I agree with what you wrote in your letter, let me be clear about that, I will put that on the record, as I have before, and that was a private letter that you wrote to the Home Secretary. There was not a public declaration, as far as I know, of support from you or from the chief scientific adviser at the Home Office, nor from the council of the Home Office scientific advisers, the chairs of which get to meet, and they are presumably there to support each other. But I am certain that is the case, and I am just wondering whether you are surprised that there was not that support for him from within the scientific advisory system, or were they aware that you had written privately to the Home Secretary, and perhaps you had said something privately to Professor Nutt, I do not know, offering him support, because I imagine it must have been a difficult time for him.

  Professor Beddington: I cannot give you any indication about how much this was known within advisory committees in the Home Office, but I did share my intention to write to the Home Secretary with Paul Wiles, who is chief scientific adviser at the Home Office.

  Q338  Dr Harris: Because I think it is important -- would you accept arguably that if people out there know, and you have made that clear now actually, usefully, that you are there to protect them if politicians, and we are a terrible bunch of politicians, and I include the opposition parties in that, start behaving politically on science matters, that you are there to support them, privately and perhaps publicly, that will actually help ensure that there is confidence that they can give the advice that they wish to give without fear or favour?

  Professor Beddington: I did not write to or contact Professor Nutt, and I think perhaps in retrospect I perhaps should have done. I did not. So to that extent, I am more than happy to share my concerns with this committee. I think that it is important that people are allowed to publish in peer reviewed journals without being criticised.

  Q339  Dr Gibson: Does this happen quite a bit then?

  Professor Beddington: Not that I am aware of, Chairman.

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